Most people worry or indulge in negative thinking from time-to-time. Life has difficult moments, and as a result, we experience emotional ups and downs. For some people, this ordinary thought process becomes toxic. Thoughts become ruminations, replaying and causing stress and emotional turmoil.
You see a colleague wearing an oversized shirt that looks like it’s from the maternity department and happily asks her when the baby is coming, only to be told that she isn’t pregnant. You are giving a presentation for your company’s board of directors and realize there is a typo on one of the slides, you look up and see that your boss has noticed too. These are standard situations that any reasonable person might experience negative feelings about, but then you recount the gaffe to your spouse and you both laugh about how awkward it was or you apologize to your boss for the spelling error, the pressure is relieved and the discomfort dissipates. The discomfort is very real but decreases with time.
It is natural to feel worried about situations where there is uncertainty or danger and many people spend time reflecting upon things that concern them. Uncomfortable interactions, negative situations, and mistakes require some consideration to be processed. Reflection helps us gain insights that enable us to grow. So when do ordinary thought, worry, and reflection become rumination?
As used in psychology, rumination refers to the compulsive, repetitive replaying of negative or unpleasant thoughts or situations. The term rumination comes from the Latin word rumen. This word describes how animals like cows store food in a temporary stomach, or rumen, which allows them to retrieve it later to finish chewing and digesting it. This process is very useful to a cow, helping it fully digest food, but for us, bringing our thoughts back up for further chewing, seldom helps us better digest them. Instead, rumination tends to be compulsive and cause a great deal of anxiety and can fuel depression and post-traumatic stress. Rumination is a chronic behavior that feels addictive- a compulsive repetition of thoughts and worries that seem to have unstoppable momentum.
Indulging in rumination creates a negative cycle whereby we feel compelled to review the painful experience, irrational worry, or emotional distress repeatedly. In fact, the ruminative cycle feels addictive. We get caught up in reanalyzing and this can lead to anxiety and depressed mood. There is also a greater risk of eating disorders for people who ruminate. Rumination causes people to feel increased stress.
While worry is natural, replaying negative thoughts again-and-again can make you feel terrible. It is also true that rumination never solves problems or helps us overcome challenges, it just diminishes our joy and leads to depression. When you reframe your thinking and realize that worry and rumination are unproductive, it becomes much easier to manage the tendency. A few good ways to manage rumination are:
- Give yourself a time limit for rumination- let yourself replay the unpleasant memory for 15 minutes, then stop and think about something else
- Instead of replaying an unpleasant memory or worrying, commit to coming up with an actionable solution
- Think about something positive- think about something you feel grateful for
- Accept the thing you are ruminating about and then let it go- there are some things you can’t change, but you can learn from every experience
- Walk, practice yoga or do some other physical activity
- Practice reframing mistakes or faux pas as opportunities
Because rumination tends to feel addictive, it is recommended by some experts that one quit, cold turkey. To quit, you will need distractions and other things to focus your attention on. Games, puzzles, or activities can keep the ruminations at bay.
Ruminating is often indicative of anxiety or depression. If you find that your thoughts are negative and you cannot get control of them, there are cognitive behavioral al treatments that may benefit you and the advice of a professional is always a good resource.
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